After the fall of France and evacuation of Commonwealth troops from Dunkirk in spring 1940, the British Isles were left in a dire situation. Britain and her Empire now stood alone against the Nazi war machine and the threat of a seaborne invasion loomed. While the bulk of the Royal Navy sat in its home port of Scapa Flow awaiting the expected German landings, a life-or-death struggle played out in the skies above Britain as Hitler’s Luftwaffe pummeled the nation’s cities and airfields. The survival of the island nation depended on millions of tons of imported food, supplies, and other raw materials. However, with the Air Force and Navy focused on defense of the home islands, convoys of transports that formed the lifeline of vital imports were easy prey for German U-boats and long-range aircraft. During the first seven months of the war, the Germans sank 402 transports – over 1.3 million tons of shipping. By the end of 1940 the British were losing 382,000 tons of shipping monthly to German attacks. Consequently, the people of Great Britain faced the very real possibility of starvation and rations were cut for civilians.
While most of the 878 British Commonwealth merchant ships lost during the first year of the war are chalked up to U-boat attacks, few people realize that 172 of those transports were the victim of long-range attack aircraft. During the interwar period German firms developed long range aircraft, ostensibly for civilian use as it would have been a violation of the Treaty of Versailles to create long range bombers. Among these were the twin-engine Heinkel 111 (He-111) and four-engine Focke-Wulf 200 (Fw-200) “Condor.” However, these aircraft were built with a dual purpose in mind and by the start of the war large numbers were in Luftwaffe service as bombers. German engineers later modified both airframes to carry torpedoes and installed additional fuel tanks to increase range to over 2,210 miles (3,560 kilometers) for the Fw-200 and over 1,450 miles (2,340 kilometers) for the He-111. Operating from airfields located in western Occupied France and later Norway, they could reach the Allied shipping lanes west of Britain outside the range of land-based fighter aircraft.
Although merchant marine transports during the first year of the war often had destroyer escorts which could hunt and kill U-boats with depth charges, there was no defense against enemy ship hunting aircraft outside the range of friendly land-based fighters. Additionally, the Luftwaffe long range anti-ship bombers acted as aerial scouts and communicated the location and movement of British transports by radio to Kriegsmarine U-boats in the sea below. German aircraft ravaged the unarmed transport convoys with near impunity. In response, the Royal Air Force established the Merchant Ship Fighter Unit (MSFU). Cloaked in secrecy, pilots for the all-volunteer unit gathered at an RAF field near Liverpool in northwest England in early May 1941. For two hours thirty-five veteran RAF fighter pilots wandered around the airfield talking amongst themselves, trying to discover exactly what type of hazardous duty they had signed up for. That afternoon their new commander, Squadron Leader Louis Strange, gathered the men and explained the critical situation in the Atlantic and their new mission – protect transport convoys from aerial attack.
For MSFU pilots it meant a one way ticket on a Hawker Hurricane that had reached the end of its service life (the aircraft had hundreds of flight hours on them and had been used heavily in the Battle of Britain). The reason for using older aircraft was simple – pilots after taking off (and hopefully shooting down one or more German bombers) would bail out or land in the sea where they would be picked up by a friendly ship. They were to be the RAF version of the Japanese “kamikaze” suicide pilots.
Operating in concert with the Royal Navy, the pilots would launch from transport vessels fitted with an eighty-five-foot rocket-powered catapult system. The device used a battery of three-inch rockets that propelled the fighter plane to the necessary velocity. With flaps at thirty degrees, a pilot could make a perfect takeoff without losing height. Known as Catapult Aircraft Merchant ships (CAM ships), these vessels operated as normal transports carrying the usual supply load, however they also did double duty acting as convoy security against threats from the air. The idea being, that when an enemy bomber was sighted, the CAM ship would launch its fighter plane which would attack and either destroy or drive off the attacking bomber. The lumbering German bombers were vulnerable targets for the nimble fighters. As an added plus the RAF pilots, veterans of the Battle of Britain, already had ample experience flying against Luftwaffe bombers. Once in the air, however, the pilot had only two choices after the combat portion of the mission was completed: parachute into the frigid North Atlantic water, or under ideal circumstances stay with the plane as he ditched, climb out of the cockpit onto the wing before the plane sank, inflate a rubber raft, and float on the waves until he was picked up. Whether or not a ship could be dispatched right away to pick up the pilot depended on if the convoy was under U-boat attack and taking evasive action (better to lose one pilot than one or more ships with their crews). If a pilot in a convoy that was headed to the Soviet Union parachuted into the icy arctic waters, he could freeze to death in minutes.
CAM ships and their “kamikaze” pilots served in the Atlantic as well as Mediterranean theaters of operation. Surprisingly, of the nine combat launches in the Atlantic, only one pilot is listed as killed in action. Flight Officer J.B. Kendal launched from the SS Empire Morn on April 26, 1942, shot down one German plane, and ran off another before ditching. He died from injuries sustained while bailing out. On another occasion, Flying Officer Alistair Hay catapulted from the SS Empire Lawrence and shot down two He-111s before his aircraft was disabled from enemy fire and he was shot in the leg. Luck was with Hay that day, as his parachute landed alongside the HMS Volunteer whose crew quickly fished him out of the water and treated his wounds. Two other pilots were able to record kills and make it to airfields in Northern Ireland and the Soviet Union, while most ditched in the sea and were picked up by friendly ships. In all, the MSFU squadron downed ten German bombers and damaged or chased off three others, likely saving multiple transport ships and many lives.
By 1943 small escort aircraft carriers entered service and began to replace the CAM ships. The last MSFU combat mission from a ship on convoy duty in the Atlantic took place in July 1943 and accounted for one Fw-200 destroyed. Around this time the unit was disbanded, after which it faded into history.